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Women artists in Masterpiece Watercolours and Drawings, by Kate Greenaway and Helen Allingham


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About the artwork

This painting is called 'Old Cottage, Pinner' by Helen Allingham.

Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) and Helen Allingham (1848-1926) were two of the most successful women artists in Victorian Britain. Friends since their early training days, they both created idyllic worlds in their art. Greenaway, a children’s illustrator, conjured-up images of charming children in a delicate world of gardens, flowers and play, Allingham a watercolour painter portrayed sunny, pretty and happy rural Britain.  These idyllic images, at times perhaps sentimental to our modern eyes, were and still are some of the most accomplished and influential graphic and watercolour works of their age.

Greenaway was born in 1846 in Hoxton, London. Her father was a wood engraver who worked regularly for the London Illustrated News. Her mother ran a fancy goods shop. As a child Greenaway drew gardens, the local landscape and copied images from her father’s collection of magazines. She went on to study at Heatherley’s School and then the newly established Slade School of Art. It was here that she first met Helen Allingham.

Greenaway started her working life producing illustrations for magazines.  She first exhibited her work in 1868 at the age of 22 at the Dudley Gallery, where she showed a watercolour and six fairy story illustrations.  These were admired by Reverend W.J. Loftie, editor of the People’s Magazine, who commissioned her to produce further illustrations for his publication. Through her association with Loftie, Greenaway was asked to work on Christmas and Valentine cards for Marcus Ward and Company. Although at first Greenaway struggled to make images that would reproduce well in colour, her final designs were well received by the public and helped secure her further commissions.  Working as a freelance illustrator, Greenaway was relatively successful; by 1871 she was earning just over £70 per year, by 1877 this had risen to £300. She received regular work from the London Illustrated News, and commissions from the Graphic, as well as exhibiting at the Royal Academy and Dudley Gallery.

In 1878, she went into partnership with Edmund Evans who was considered to be the best engraver in London and a pioneer in colour printing. Together they produced Greenaway’s first children’s book Under the Window; approximately 100,000 copies were sold and Greenaway became the best known illustrator of her day. By 1881 she was earning £1,500 per year.

Her work characterised by delicate lines and colour used an eclectic mix of styles and subject. Pre-Raphaelite-like detail, Aesthetic design and Regency style bonnets and clothes were mixed with Victorian details. Greenaway made numerous studies of nature, flowers and gardens, the majority from the secure environment of her own home. She was described with admiration by her friends and contemporaries as a diligent, caring and quiet woman who dedicated her life to her art. Her world, by choice, was small.  The family house she had built in Hampstead by the influential architect Richard Norman Shaw became Greenaway’s, creative centre. Her mother, father and brother were her models.  But her homely nature did not isolate from cultural circles, in fact she was friends with some of the great literary and artistic names of her day including Tennyson, Browning and, most significantly, John Ruskin. 

In a career that lasted over 30 years, she made illustrations for more than 150 books and 90 periodicals, as well as exhibiting 49 paintings. Her popularity continued into the 1890s when much to her disappointment her work started to fall out of favour. As she wrote to Ruskin, ‘It is so difficult now I am no longer at all the fashion.’ Today her illustrations for children are regarded as some of the best ever produced.

Helen Allingham (née Paterson), like Kate Greenaway, was born into a middle-class family with artistic associations. Her aunt was the famous Laura Herford, the first woman ever to be accepted to train as an artist at the Royal Academy Schools. Allingham spent her early years in Altrincham, Cheshire before moving to Birmingham when she was thirteen after her father, a doctor, died during a diptheria epidemic. From the age of fourteen she attended the Birmingham School of Design and from there moved to London to study at the Royal Academy Schools.

Like Greenaway, Helen Allingham started her working life as a freelance illustrator, securing work with engraving firms to make ends meet. She was eventually commissioned by Joseph Swain to do four full-page illustrations for Once a Week magazine.  He was so impressed with her work that he introduced her to the editor of the newly established Graphic and in 1870 she was offered a permanent post on its staff. Allingham was doing so well with her magazine work that in 1872 she decided to abandon her training at the Royal Academy. Instead, she enrolled for evening classes at the newly opened Slade School where women were actually allowed to attend life drawing classes.

Allingham’s work on the Graphic brought her in to contact with literary figures and actors including Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, Thomas Hardy and William Allingham the Irish poet. She and William married in 1874.  From this time Allingham concentrated on her true love watercolour painting.  Family holidays on the Sussex coast and in the countryside of Surry provided her with inspiration for her highly detailed, light-filled landscape studies. From 1881, the family moved to Surrey where they leased a house at Sandhills, near Witley. The house, its garden and the surrounding landscape became Allingham’s studio. Her numerous studies of thatched cottages, women and children and rambling gardens struck a cord with the middle-classes and her work sold extremely well.  Her images evoked a bygone age before industrialisation.  Today, the images can appear as idealised visions of Victorian rural life, which in reality was dominated by poverty, but Allingham was not naïve, she knew what rural life was like. However, what she wanted to record was a disappearing world, a world before the demolition or insensitive restoration of rural domestic architecture. 

When William Allingham died in 1889, Helen was left to support three children on her own. She worked prolifically to ensure their financial security. During these early days of widowhood she was comforted by her old friend from art college days Kate Greenaway. They made plein-air painting expeditions to Pinner, Middlesex, a pursuit that Greenaway found frustrating, but which provided Allingham with just the right inspiration for her work.  Allingham’s highly detailed, colourful and technically proficient work continued to be much admired and in 1890 she was elected as the first ever, full member of the Royal Society of Watercolour Painters. It was the events of the First World War that eventually made her work look out of touch and old-fashioned. Her output and success had been prodigious; when she died in 1926 she left an estate of £25,000.

Both Kate Greenaway and Helen Allingham achieved great success, both critically and financially. Their artistic talents coupled with an outstanding work ethic, determination and business acumen secured their place at the forefront of Victorian art. Today their work continues to appeal to many for its beauty, sensitivity and joyfulness.